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Taking leaders off the pedestal

Good leaders know better than to allow others to put them on a pedestal, writes John Baldoni. Instead, they see the value in dialogue with others.

4 min read



(Richard Drury/Getty Images)

“We study Lincoln not because he was perfect,” writes Jon Meacham in the Prologue of And Let There Be Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle. “But because he was a man whose inconsistencies resonate even now.”

Therein lies the equation that those of us who work with and write about leaders. But, of course, none are perfect, and when we put them on a pedestal, we do two things: one, diminish the leader’s humanity because we put halos on their reputation, and two, reveal our blind spots. [I have fallen prey to this syndrome myself, having written glowingly of men in power who, upon reflection, proved themselves less than worthy.]

It matters because when we view our leaders as infallible, we give them the benefit of the doubt when it may not be warranted. When they are on a pedestal, we view them as above us and, therefore, unworthy of our critiques. In reality, they need us more than ever. 

A leader who sees no faults in themselves is a leader who can never be trusted. Good leaders I have known are aware of their shortcomings and labor mightily to overcome them. They also welcome open dialogue as a means of finding the essence of an issue but also as a means of testing assumptions.

What we owe the leader

We, followers, can do our leader a service if we do the following.

Challenge assumptions. The person at the top may often be the least informed. One reason is that individuals below hide bad news, so only good news filters up. This practice leads to faulty thinking that can lead to assumptions without basis. Come to the meeting prepared with facts to support your position.

Respect the position. Understand that the person at the top has many responsibilities. View your role as one of support. You want to help the executive succeed so the team can achieve its objectives. One technique for presenting an opposing idea is to ask the executive to weigh in on an idea and explain why. In working through the argument, there is the opportunity to discuss the pros and cons of the issue.

Support the final decision. How often have you seen staffers walk away from a critical decision-making meeting only to tell or text others that they disagree and will not support the conclusion? Right then and there, alignment dissipates, and follow-through on execution becomes more arduous. So differ, yes, but keep the final decision.

What the leader owes us

These steps are only possible if the leader is a boss who is open to others and seeks only his counsel. You may want to raise issues, but you must be very careful. Distrust bubbles deeply within a boss because they are not the smartest in the room but certainly the most insecure. “To add value to others,” writes John Maxwell, “one must first value others.” Failure to find that value walls the leader off not just from critics but from the contributions of others.

We are all frail creatures, but we are not fragile. On the contrary, we have strengths that can sustain us when it is time to lead and when it is time to speak truth to power.

“Lincoln,” writes Meacham at the end of the prologue, “was not all he might have been — vanishingly few humans are — but he was more than many men who have been… And, as Lincoln himself would readily acknowledge, we can always do better.”

Good advice for anyone who leads and all of us who follow.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


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